God the Exalted, in two short verses, ties the fate of humanity to “a day” and the means to salvation on that day by swearing by them both:
لَا أُقْسِمُ بِيَوْمِ الْقِيَامَةِ – وَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالنَّفْسِ اللَّوَّامَةِ
There is, by God’s oath, no doubt as to the truth of the Day of Judgment as well as the kind of soul that will find clemency there. The self-reproaching soul (نفس لوامة). As many commentators have pointed out, the term lawwamah (لوّامة) is an inflection that gives the sense of one who does such an action habitually that it comes to define that person. For example, the word for blacksmith, haddad (حدّاد) is also derived from this same form, giving the meaning that one who works with iron (hadid – حديد) to such an extent that that person becomes defined by that action. Similarly, the nafs lawwamah is that soul which calls itself into account with such frequency that God the Exalted defines that soul by this action and swears by it. Similarly, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, in his Tafsir al-Kabir, explains this term:
أنها هي النفوس الشريفة التي لا تزال تلوم نفسها وإن اجتهدت في الطاعة وعن الحسن
“It (nafs lawwamah) is that noble soul which does not refrain from rebuking itself and thus strives in obedience and doing good.”
Similarly, al-Mahalli and his student, Imam al-Suyuti, may God have mercy on them both, state something similar:
النفس اللوامة التي تلوم نفسها وإن اجتهدت في الإحسان
“The nafs lawwamah is that which criticizes itself and strives for perfection (ihsan).
It should be noted that this form of self-criticism is not criticism for the sake of criticism nor is it to be taken to extreme lengths. The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم admonished his Community against inveighing against oneself to extremes:
لاَ يَقُلْ أَحَدُكُمْ خَبُثَتْ نَفْسِي . وَلْيَقُلْ لَقِسَتْ نَفْسِي
“None of you should say, ‘my soul has become evil or tainted’, but rather one should say my soul has become covetous.” — Sahih Muslim.
At any rate, we can see a strong connection between the Day of Judgment and the self-criticizing soul. We are warned against taking this to the extreme. And lastly, I leave some words for contemplation, advice, from the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم on how we might develop the habit of reproaching ourselves:
الكيسُ منْ دانَ نفسَهُ، و عملَ لمَا بعدَ الموتِ، و العاجزُ منْ أَتْبَعَ نفسَهُ هواهَا، و تمنَّى على اللهِ الأمانيَّ
“The intelligent person is the one who indicts his own soul and works for what comes after death while the imbecile is he that, having fallen under the authority of his passions, asks God for frivolities.” – Tirmidhi amongst others.